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How tourism in China and the Philippines could both harm and save the environment

[Photo of YuanmingyuanLake]Guimaras juts out from the center of a long and narrow channel that offers solace to migratory birds and various marine life, some of which are endemic to the isle. Hollow rock formations on the island’s southern tip have been home to hordes of fruit bats that could blot out the sun at dusk as they search for food.

Two immense land masses that form the central Philippine region protect the limestone island from the onslaught of the Pacific Ocean to the east, and the cold torrents of the South China Sea to the west.

The island’s rich volcanic soil nurtures the sweetest variety of Philippine mango, upon which the island’s whole agricultural industry is built.

The core of Nueva Valencia, among the island’s main coastal towns used to be lined with a strip of peach powder, formed eons ago by the slow crushing of waves on limestone formations.

Guimaras’s unique natural wonders have made it a prime destination for local and foreign tourists. It was chosen by the University of the Philippines College of Fisheries to house an ocean sanctuary and nursery for a wide variety of Philippine marine life, including endangered ones. Until tragedy struck in 2006.

Paradise Lost

In August 2006, a dilapidated tanker loaded with a shipment of crude oil enroute to the southern Philippines strayed to the Guimaras Strait after getting caught in a terrible monsoon. It sought shelter in the calmer waters of the channel but drifted off the coast of Nueva Valencia. The storm worsened and slammed on the vessel. With a wide crack on its side, the barge sank into the freezing depths.

But that wasn’t the tragedy. While the crew and captain were saved by canoe-bound fisherfolk, the sunken ship leaked its liquid cargo through the large crack. A wide oil sludge surfaced and was carried by the current to the shores of Nueva Valencia and nearby towns.

A film of thick black goo covered almost the entire stretch of the beach, enveloping everything on the shore, coral to driftwood, fish to bat. Whole mangrove forests were soaked in the dark petroleum slime, which emitted a toxic stench spreading hundreds of yards away.

It has been the worst oil spill in the country’s history. Guimaras, the island paradise, seemed lost forever.

There was no let-up in efforts to clear the beaches of the spill; it was so bad international groups and foreign governments had to pitch in. Even at the quick pace the island’s rehabilitation is being undertaken, experts said it would take 20 to 30 years before Guimaras could bounce back as a tourist hub. Life for the locals, including the island’s marine species, will never be the same.

Still, rusty barges laden with oil and other hazardous chemicals continue to criss-cross the archipelago in a race fueled by progress.

Gorges of Success

[Photo of Three Gorges Dam]Much like the Philippines, China is struggling to balance its treasured tourism industry and the requirements of an expanding and successful economy.

Experts have warned the government that the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project could result in an “environmental catastrophe.” (The dam would be the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant.)

As the project went on, pollutants have been dumped in the Yangtze River, known as one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. The Three Gorges Project Committee said it would investigate reports that construction waste has poisoned water sources and damaged the river’s biodiversity.

Huge waves, landslides, soil erosion, and threats to indigenous wildlife have also been blamed on the US$22 billion project.

“We want to build a first-class hydropower facility. But we also aim for a good environment,” Xinhua quoted project officials.

Tourism vs. Tourism

The Three Gorges Dam highlights the impact of development on tourism. But there are also some efforts aimed at improving tourism that have backfired.

The lake in Yuanmingyuan Park in Beijing (known outside China as the Old Summer Palace) is an example. To prevent water loss during droughts, its management laid membranes on the bottom of the park’s lake. These kept water in and allowed the park to continue its boating service in the summer when visitors came in droves. But this layer also stopped the flow of groundwater and killed the lake’s wildlife. The State Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and ordered the Yuanmingyuan Park management to remove these plastic membranes. Unfortunately, most of the damage done have been irreversible, experts said.

Rehabilitation efforts have been ongoing since 2005 to bring tourists back. (The number of visitors average about two million a year.) Park officials have also laid down a lining of clay on the 133-hectare lake to recreate the natural habitat and to attract wildlife again.

For both China and the Philippines, there may be a win-win solution to the tourism versus development dilemma. It’s ecological tourism.

Ecological Tourism

Ecotourism promotes conservation measures and educates guests about local environmental issues. It encourages meaningful community development, is profitable, and can even sustain itself.

Conceived in the late 1980s, the term “ecotourism” gained global recognition when the United Nations celebrated the “International Year of Ecotourism.”

Today, ecotourism is growing at a rapid pace of 10%-30% every year. It now accounts for one in every five tourists worldwide.

Beaches, coral reefs, mangroves, rivers, waterfalls, caves, etc. are seen as natural attractions under this concept. Cultural and historical attractions are also treasured in the same way. Temples, churches, and artifacts become tourist interests as well as festivals, rites, rituals, traditional fishing, woodcarving, and other crafts and events.

However, ecotourism is not without flaws. Some destinations, like caves and marine ecosystems, are highly sensitive to intrusion and can be harmed even by careful visitors. Human presence in habitats, such as safaris, also have adverse effects on wild animals.

Nurturing Nature

[Photo of Oil and Water]In 2007, the World Bank approved a US$50 million loan to help the Philippine environment department carry out various conservation efforts. An additional US$7 million was allotted for the management of watersheds and wetlands because of their ecotourism potential.

“More effective environmental management is crucial for growth in sectors such as tourism,” World Bank country director Joachim Von Amsberg said.

Like China, the Philippines has also put in place the Environmental Impact Assessment System, which is an essential step in the implementation of all government projects.

China, on the other hand, is working out a taxation plan to strengthen its environmental protection efforts in 2008. The plan aims to create a better system of collecting environmental taxes from companies by raising tax percentages according to profit. The taxation plan is part of China’s five-year plan, which aims to create an industrial system “that will aid resource conservation and environmental protection.”

There was a time when tourism was frowned upon because of the destruction it brought to the environment. But that was a time when tourism meant fishing on gas-powered motorized boats, hunting elephants with shotguns, four-wheel safari driving in rainforests, and guided tours in massive air-conditioned buses.

Tourism is now evolving. No longer the environment’s enemy, it still manages to generate huge revenues and sustain its own growth. It is slowly becoming an industry where its selling point is nature itself. It even seems that what will save nature in the end won’t be stringent environmental laws. It will be tourism.

print ed: 03/08


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